Position review: Bucs need to support Gerald McCoy on the D-line

From left: Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Jacquies Smith, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Michael Johnson.

USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — Everything that’s good about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive line starts and ends with Gerald McCoy.

He’s the group’s heart, its voice, its soul. But no man can provide life alone. He needs help. He needs others to sneak into the spotlight.  

Fellow tackle Clinton McDonald was a decent addition. End Jacquies Smith proved to be a sound find. But search hard to find more.

End Michael Johnson? No way. The depth pieces? Few make you stand up and say, "Wow." Where will the help come?

"It’s not a wasted year," McCoy said. "I mean, I played, didn’t I? It’s still a career. But what do people want out of a career? You want a championship. So you just keep playing. Regardless of how long it takes, you just keep fighting until you get there."

The fight must continue because the Bucs have a long, long way to climb after finishing 2-14 in coach Lovie Smith’s first year. The defense proved to be Tampa Bay’s strength, but not after a large struggle to start. The Bucs had 36 sacks, which was tied for No. 21 in the NFL.

What must be done? Help for McCoy, to start. Tampa Bay thought it received an upgrade with Johnson, but he was a massive disappointment. Jacquies Smith was strong, but the Bucs need more like him to create that valuable pressure.

Sure, McCoy is the heartbeat. But the Bucs could use more teeth, more bite, around him.

Position analysis

Here’s a closer look at Tampa Bay’s defensive line in 2014:

STARTERS

Clinton McDonald, DT — He had a career-high 45 tackles and five sacks in 13 games after joining the Bucs as a free agent last March. He also had two passes defensed and one interception. McCoy, of course, is the heart of Tampa Bay’s defense. But McDonald showed his value at times in serving as a plug presence in the middle. He has a combined 10 1/2 sacks the past two seasons. Look for him to continue his development as a pass rusher next season.

Gerald McCoy, DT — His season came with a large payday when the Bucs locked him up last October with a seven-year extension worth $95.2 million that can grow to $98 million through incentives. He’s one of the few nationally recognized personalities the Bucs have, so his value to the franchise is clear. He was a beast in the preseason, but he was hobbled with injuries that included a broken left hand and a sprained right knee. He had 35 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks and three passes defensed in 13 games.

Michael Johnson, DE — One of the biggest disappointments of Tampa Bay’s free-agent class, Johnson had just four sacks and 27 tackles in 14 games. He disappeared at times on Sundays, and that’s not what’s needed from someone who signed a five-year deal worth $43.75 million last March. He must be dynamic from his position. Too often, he was a dud. What will become of him next season? That’s anyone’s guess.

Jacquies Smith, DE — He became a true find by the Bucs’ scouting staff. Smith had 17 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks and two passes defensed in 15 games. A former member of the Buffalo Bills, Smith was claimed off waivers in September. From there, he earned the coaching staff’s trust quickly. He earned seven starts by season’s end.

BACKUPS

On the clock

Akeem Spence, DT — The second-year player made strides after an inconsistent rookie season, earning a career-high 37 tackles and three sacks in all 16 games. Still, the Bucs earned an upgrade at his position by signing McDonald. Spence had five starts last year compared to 14 in 2013.

Da’Quan Bowers, DE/DT — Many thought he was on the bubble to make the roster before Week 1, but the former second-round pick’s versatility helped him survive the final cut. Still, Bowers was underwhelming again. He had just 21 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and one pass defensed in 11 games. His days with the Bucs could be numbered.

George Uko, DT — He had a minimal impact as a depth piece. Uko, a rookie from USC, produced no stats in two games played.

William Gholston, DE — Gholston saw his role increase in his second season. He had 42 tackles, two sacks and three passes defensed in 15 games with a career-high nine starts. Along with Smith, he represents youth for the future at defensive end should the Bucs continue to develop both.

Larry English, DE — He appeared in the preseason with the Bucs and then was signed again last September to boost defensive line depth. He had just 12 tackles and one sack in 12 games played with one start. A former first-round pick, he’s a rotational player at best within Tampa Bay’s roster.

Adrian Clayborn, DE — He was placed on injured reserve last September with a biceps injury. That’s not a good development for the former first-round pick, who could see his time with the Bucs come to an end in the offseason. He had just one tackle in one game with Tampa Bay in 2014. He has 13 sacks in four NFL seasons, far below what an early draft selection at his position should have.

POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS

Depending on how much trust the Bucs place in Smith, they could be set with their starters on the defensive line … if they choose to give Johnson another chance to redeem himself. That means the offseason will be about adding depth behind McCoy, McDonald, Smith and Johnson. There has been chatter of making a push for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh if the Detroit Lions don’t use the franchise tag on him. But it’s hard to see that possibility coming to fruition with so much money dedicated to McCoy and McDonald. Could the Bucs bring back George Selvie, who has played with the Dallas Cowboys? Who knows, but more depth here wouldn’t hurt.

One and done

BEST DRAFT OPTIONS

With greater needs elsewhere, it’s hard to see the Bucs selecting a defensive lineman in the high rounds. Trying to correct the offense’s ills seems much more plausible, but perhaps the Bucs will try to pick up a defensive end in the late rounds in case Smith or Johnson don’t pan out. Miami’s Anthony Chickillo or Clemson’s Corey Crawford could be worth watching.

FINAL THOUGHT

By now it’s obvious McCoy is a pillar of the Bucs’ future, so it’s Tampa Bay’s responsibility to build around him. The success of Smith’s scheme starts with defensive line pressure, and though McCoy didn’t live up to the terror he showed in the preseason, he had a solid year that likely would have ended with more than 10 sacks had he stayed healthy late. Johnson’s situation is intriguing. How much slack will he be given after his disappointing 2014 campaign? His clock is ticking.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.